Iran and Pakistan

Sub Title : A detailed commentary on the recent Iran - Pakistan spa

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2024

Author : Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 41

Category : Geostrategy

: January 27, 2024

Iran conducted missile strikes in Pakistan, targeting Jaish al-Adl insurgent group bases, coinciding with attacks in Iraq and Syria. Pakistan denounced the sovereignty breach, which killed children, and withdrew its ambassadors. Pakistan retaliated in Iran, causing fatalities, but by January 20, both nations sought diplomatic de-escalation despite underlying distrust. Analysts speculate the strikes may reveal proxy conflicts or strategic messaging, reflecting regional power dynamics and tensions.

On 16 January, Iran launched missile strikes into Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, claiming it had hit two strongholds of anti-Iran insurgent group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). Iran announced the attack in Pakistan concurrent to its strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Pakistan said the strike inside Pakistani territory killed two children and injured three girls and said; “This violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is completely unacceptable and can have serious consequences.” Islamabad recalled its Ambassador to Iran and said that the Iranian Ambassador would not be allowed back into the country for the time being.

Less than two days later in a reciprocal strike, Pakistan hit back with not only missiles but also fighter jets in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province – claiming to target hideouts of anti-Pakistan ethno-nationalist insurgents operating from Iranian soil.  At least nine people were killed, including four children and three women. Iranian media reports said those killed were “non-Iranians”, implying they could have been Pakistani nationals.

By 20 January, Pakistan sought to defuse the situation, with Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar’s Cabinet deciding to work on restoring full diplomatic relations with Iran. The foreign ministers of both nations emphasized the importance of security and military cooperation.

Despite the agreement to de-escalate military tensions, the events reflect a persistent mutual distrust, hinting at ongoing challenges in their bilateral relations.

Possible Reasons that Led to the Strike

Analysts worldwide are postulating various motivations behind the recent strikes. Some suggest that Jaish al-Adl, with its strong connections to the Sunni community in Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan province and support from Sunni extremists in Pakistan, could be demonstrating that the strategy of using proxies can be a double-edged sword, a concept possibly backed by the US and Israel. This proxy engagement diverts Iranian attention and resources from its western front, where it has been focusing on the ‘three H’s’ (Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthis). The context includes Iran’s severe internal attack on January 3, when two bombs killed 84 during a memorial for Qasem Soleimani, assassinated by the US. In what seems to be a retaliatory move, Iran launched ballistic missiles on January 15 at targets in Syria and Northern Iraq, claiming to hit Islamic State and Mossad operatives, allegedly linked to the Kerman bombings.

These actions might also be aimed at boosting the morale of Iran’s Middle Eastern proxies, who have been fighting without direct Iranian military intervention. The lack of retaliation from the countries targeted by Iran’s January 15 attacks might have given Iran the confidence to extend its military actions against Pakistan.

Another perspective suggests that the attacks between Iran and Pakistan were orchestrated and mutually anticipated, implying a form of tacit agreement between the two nations.

Jaish al-Adl : A Bone of Contention between the two Countries

Jaish al-Adl, formed in 2012 and consisting mainly of former Jundullah militants, has been active in the Pakistan-Iran border region, particularly in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, where it has launched attacks on Iranian forces. Iran had previously warned of cross-border military action against the group.

The Iranian missile strike on Pakistan’s territory might have been a response to a Jaish al-Adl attack in Rask on December 15, where eleven Iranian security personnel were killed. Pakistan’s ex-Foreign Secretary, Shamshad Ahmad Khan, alleged in an interview that the U.S. supports Jaish al-Adl as a proxy to counter Iran’s backing of Palestine.

The timing of the strike was notable as it occurred during a period of apparent diplomatic engagement between Iran and Pakistan, including a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos and joint naval exercises in the Gulf. Despite this, Iran’s Foreign Minister declared in Davos that the strikes targeted only Jaish al-Adl militants, not Pakistani citizens.

Pakistan’s Dilemma

The Iranian strike in Pakistan was notably deeper into the territory than previous incidents, such as Iran’s 2021 hostage rescue operation and Pakistan’s downing of an Iranian drone in 2017. Pakistan’s surprise at the attack placed it in a difficult strategic position. Inaction could potentially encourage Afghanistan’s Taliban, who harbor the anti-Pakistan TTP, while aggressive moves against Iran risked exacerbating already strained relations with neighbors. With tensions with the Afghan Taliban and the risk of conflict on multiple fronts including Afghanistan, India, and Iran, Pakistan was in a precarious situation.

China, with significant investments in Baluchistan, particularly the Gwadar port critical to its Belt and Road Initiative, called for restraint from both Pakistan and Iran. Russia also urged the two nations to exercise utmost restraint, highlighting the inopportuneness of such conflicts among SCO partners and the advantages it gives to those opposing regional peace and stability.

The Effect in the Region

Although both Western and regional countries do not want the war in Gaza to escalate, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis are patiently and methodically consolidating an alliance of forces across a regional battlefield.  These include the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. The formation of this axis with Iran as the fulcrum presents a direct challenge to the regional order and the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea demonstrate a threat to global trade and energy supplies.

By targeting three neighbours Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, that too simultaneously, in a way shows the kind of relations that Iran has in the region; strained and tense at best even with Iraq, otherwise an ally at present. Though the current attack on Iraq was confined to the Kurds’ area, supposedly a building of a local allegedly fronting for Israel’s Mossad.  Can Iran’s decision to strike be guided by internal pressure based forcing it to flex its military muscle to deter further targeted killings and strikes against its allies in the region. The Iranian strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan also highlight Iran’s ability to project power beyond its borders and could have significant implications for regional security.

In an official statement Iran’s Foreign Ministry emphasised that Iran differentiates between Pakistan’s friendly and brotherly government and armed terrorists. It always adheres to its policy of good neighbourliness and does not allow its enemies and terrorist allies to strain these relations. From another perspective, the Iranian action also reflects the kind of military depth the country thinks it possesses, which not everyone is willing to concede.

Implications For India

The situation is clear: Pakistan is now stretched across three borders—India, its primary concern; Afghanistan, where the Taliban have permitted militant attacks; and Iran, with whom tensions have risen.

Questions about the efficacy of Chinese-supplied radars and air defense systems have emerged, as they failed to detect Iranian drones and missiles. This is not the first instance of Pakistan’s airspace vulnerability; similar issues were apparent during the operation against Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the Balakot strikes, the accidental BrahMos missile landing in 2022, and now with Iran’s incursion.

Pakistan’s military focus may have to shift westwards, potentially entangling the 11th and 12th Corps, based in Peshawar and Quetta, in regional conflicts. Pakistan’s counterstrikes may also signal to India its readiness to respond to any territorial breach, possibly with China’s tacit backing. This could be a move to reassert the military’s significance.

The escalation in the Middle East, a vital region for India’s energy imports and exports, could have severe repercussions. The Chabahar Port in Iran, key to India’s North-South Trade Corridor, underscores the region’s importance. These events highlight the strategic exploitation of hard power deficits, emphasizing the need for nations to bolster their deterrent capabilities to protect sovereignty.


Iran’s recent military strike against its eastern neighbour marks a significant intensification in regional tensions. The action suggests that Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities were not a deterrent for Iran, which chose to directly target terror camps within Pakistan. This move is noteworthy not just for its directness but also for the clear signal Iran sent by using its official military forces instead of relying on non-state actors, indicating a perceived vulnerability in Pakistan’s defence posture.

Pakistan, already grappling with internal security challenges from various groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP), and a strained relationship with the Afghan Taliban, now faces an increased threat. Iran’s use of missiles and drones in its attack opens a new front for Pakistan, potentially overextending its defence resources.

This incident exposes the underlying strains within the regional order and highlights the complex and volatile nature of geopolitical relations in the area. However, the prospect of a broader conflict is in no party’s interest, suggesting a mutual understanding of the need to contain the situation.